Re: [xmca] Magpie Writing Systems

From: David Preiss (
Date: Wed Jan 03 2007 - 19:21:29 PST


I totally agree with you that Tomasello leaves many open questions
there and that his account of the origin of writing (and many other
cultural symbols) is incomplete. I guess that it is because he gives
too much emphasis to theory of mind and the subjective side of
symbols instead of their objective side. And that's maybe why he does
not reflect on the non-alphabetic origin of the alphabet. As regards
to writing, I think that Goody and Olson have what Tomasello is
missing. That side, The cultural origins of human cognition is one of
the best psychological books I have ever read in my entire life and I
think it has not been appropriated by scholars as it deserves.


On Jan 3, 2007, at 4:23 PM, David Kellogg wrote:

> A couple of months ago, a propos ape language, Mike told me to go
> and read Tomasello's "The cultural origins of human cognition". I'm
> ashamed to say that I've only just got around to it.
> I've already solved one mystery with it (that is, the question that
> I've been bugging the list with for several years now, namely the
> extent to which Vygotsky's principle that "each higher function was
> thus originally shared between two persons" (Collected Works,
> Volume 3: 96) can be called Janet's Law, as Valsiner and van der
> Veer claim (The Social Mind: 370).
> A couple of months ago I offered the following quote from p. 87 of
> Janet's 1909 book, Les neveroses, which Vygotsky probably read:
> “In any case, is there really a big difference between an idea
> and a function? A function is, like an idea, a system of images
> narrowly associated with one another in such a way that they are
> able to mutually evoke each other. The sole (?) difference is that
> a function, such as that of language, is a much more considerable
> system than an idea; it contains thousands of terms rather than a
> small number of images reunited in the polygon constituting the
> idea. The second (!) crucial difference is that an idea is a system
> recently formed in the course of our lives, while a function is a
> vast system established long ago by our ancestors. An idea is a
> function which is beginning, while a function is an idea of our
> ancestors which has aged.”
> You can see that the second difference (not to be confused with
> the sole difference!) involves cultural transmission, and that
> Janet is making a link between phylogenesis (of language) and the
> microgenesis (of an idea). Vygotsky later posits two culturally
> mediated transitions, linked, but distinct: from phylogenesis to
> ontogenesis and from microgenesis to ontogenesis. Yes, they are
> both examples of cultural transmission, but no, they are not at all
> the same thing. "Janet's Law" is really Vygotsky's; these Russians
> are intellectual magpies, constantly hatching their own eggs in
> other nests.
> But of course mysteries lead on to mysteries. Tomasello claims
> that in the course of the phylogenesis of language, alphabetic
> writing was invented exactly once, and all other instances of it
> are examples of cultural diffusion.
> I find this highly doubtful. Did King Sejong the Great import the
> Hanggeul alphabet from the West? What about the Japanese syllabary
> or the one invented in Taiwan?
> Even if I believed it, I think it is meaningless.
> First of all, there is no such thing as a “pure” alphabetic
> writing system, and that for two reasons: a) alphabetic writing has
> non-alphabetic origins (the letter “a” originally meant the head of
> an ox, for example), and b) writing systems require punctuation,
> spaces between words, and other non-alphabetic elements to work.
> Secondly, there is no such thing as a “pure” non-alphabetic
> writing system. We Chinese speakers know very well that only a very
> few Chinese characters are “ideographic” (interestingly, they are
> usually things that writers in other languages use ideographs for
> too: numbers, the sun, the moon, etc.). Most Chinese characters do
> have a phonological element
> Similarly, very few English words are purely alphabetic; one
> reason why our spelling system is so fiendishly difficult is that
> many words have components that indicate something about their
> semantic content, and these come from other languages (as
> scientific concepts generally do; these scientists are magpies...).
> Halliday says that all languages systems eventually evolve the
> sort of writing system they deserve. English is a promiscuous sort
> of tongue, and we’ve got the spelling system that loose morals will
> land you with. But note the use of “evolve” rather than “invent”!
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
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David Preiss, Ph.D.
Profesor Auxiliar / Assistant Professor

Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile
Escuela de Psicología
Av Vicuña Mackenna 4860
Macul, Santiago

Fono: 3544605
Fax: 3544844
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